Last year I was invited to a Medway Dementia Action Alliance meeting at the new Kent Fire and Rescue Service building in Rochester, Kent. When I arrived I imagined we would be going into a boardroom as normal and that Kent Fire and Rescue Service were just kindly hosting us. We had been warned that if we wanted to attend the Road Safety Experience as well, then to arrive early. We were also warned not to attend this if we were of a sensitive disposition.
As I entered the large foyer there was a crashed car in the middle of the floor. With my associates around me waiting, I presumed this was where the Road Safety Experience began. However this was not the case, and we were lead into a new room which was beautifully laid out as a small cinema.
I instantly realised I had completed misinterpreted the lovely new building – having opened in April 2016, this was no mere fire station as I had for some reason presumed (or fire station in the typical sense at all it turned out) or Kent Fire and Rescue Service HQ – this was an immersive teaching centre.
As I sat down and the lights dimmed, a film began to play. A young man who has been drinking gets into his car, turns his music up loud and drives off rapidly without fastening his seatbelt (literal schoolboy error). The music pumps out loudly from the cinemas speakers and you are taken into the young teenagers world. The excitement of driving through the night from one destination to the next, music blasting and making the car vibrate.
Of course, just as in harsh reality, this does not end well. The young man crashes and he and all his belongings go flying through and around the car. As the chaos ends he is left in the darkness – his phone vibrates and bleep’s with a text from his mum saying “Are u okay?”. The screen goes black and I hear sirens. Then, something completely unexpected happens, the screen the film was projected onto bounces up and disappears – revealing the car crash reenacted. Car debris are scattered across the stage area and the car is in carnage. We didn’t get the full experience on this occasion, but usually there would be firemen who come out to reenact the difficult task of trying to cut someone out of a car crash.
I could not actually believe what I was seeing, this was theatre being used to educate young minds, in a setting that was completely unexpected. I was so excited that someone, a group of people even, had been smart enough to realise the value of creativity and immersion for education.
I planned to visit again and take a deeper insight into the centre and what it was about, so I re-visited in December 2016.
I sat down with road safety manager Lawrence Pater over a coffee and we discussed the way the Road Safety Experience came about. Lawrence explained that there were some vital lessons they wanted people to learn through the experience – from risk assessing an accident scene through to knowing that it is definitely 999 that you call in an emergency.
Lawrence asked me “When you were 16 did you worry about much else apart from yourself?” “No!” I replied laughing. “This is the issue, many young people do not think about situations outside of themselves, therefore we have to try and reach their heart to adopt a change in behaviour”. The point about behavioral change was a clear one, Kent Fire and Rescue are a trusted ‘brand’ to begin with – which helps people to listen and believe. Additionally, the ‘experience’ rather than simple classroom teaching has more of an impact – you as an audience member, or even participant (I will explain in a minute) become involved.
Lawrence explained that the increase in drink driving and drug driving was becoming of such a serious concern, that something had to change to educate young people to be aware of the dangers. The centre is the first and only purpose built road safety experience in the UK – and we are lucky enough to have it here in Medway. I had to ask “How was this place and concept designed? It is so unique!”. “Students were involved in the design, they gave feedback about what would have the most impact and what they would engage with the most” Lawrence replied.
I watched students from a local academy as they toured the other various experiences in the building. There was a ‘bar’ scene where students had to guess how much alcohol they were “allowed” to drink before being over the limit. They then moved on to a large roulette wheel, where students had to guess the answers to certain questions and battle against their friends to score points. Then came the obligatory goggle glasses test, where students were asked to walk and balance on a raised platform.
I asked some of the students about the experience and what had the most impact in the centre. They all agreed that it was the film, which is the the introduction to the experience day. Charlotte, 17, commented “When the young man crashed and his mum text him asking if he was okay, that really got to me. It made me think about how you should think about your parents when driving. Also I have learnt today that even if you were drinking the night before, you might still be over the limit the following morning and not be equipped to drive”.
I had a brief chat with a teacher who had brought her students to the centre, she said “This is a really good way of engaging students – it is realistic and has clear messages. The space is clearly designed for delivery and is very interactive – however it is also serious and had a clear impact on the student’s mood because this is a real danger”.
Immersive teaching, often created by theatre groups like “Punchdrunk” or creative organisations “Ministry of Stories”, moves hearts and minds. “Visitor feedback tells us that immersive environments create the most memorable experiences” says Sarah Lockwood (Head of Learning and Interpretation at the National Maritime Museum) in a video about “Against Captain’s Orders” which was created at the museum by Punchdrunk.
The difference with Punchdrunk is they create theatrical immersive teaching experiences within spaces that would usually not usually have such. Kent Fire and Rescue Service have however created a permanent immersive teaching space that will likely be shaped by the needs of the time. Take a look at KidZania if you want to see a really full on version of what immersive teaching can look like!
I can only hope that the future of education includes even more immersive teaching. Let me know if you have seen other great examples of what immersive teaching can look like!
To find out more visit www.kent.fire-uk.org or/and watch the video below.
By Natasha Steer